I’ve always considered myself a ‘doggy person’ instead of a cat lover. However, my opinion has changed quite a bit after our neighbours’ three kids pestered them for a kitten. It duly arrived and was spoilt rotten. Unfortunately, she escaped from the house as soon as she came into season and returned home pregnant! The kids were delighted, but it wasn’t a good thing that a cat, which was still only a kitten, should fall pregnant. It was very sad when the cat died in labour with most of the litter stillborn, except for one all-black kitten that my wife delivered. This was Rosie. What a start to life! From day one she was hand-reared and became a marvellous family pet. However, like mother, she escaped the first time she came into season and returned home pregnant! Fortunately, she gave birth to five very healthy kittens, but six cats in the household didn’t seem like a good idea. The day duly arrived when the parents decided to take them away for adoption, but the kids found out about the plan, stole the car keys and barricaded themselves in a bedroom with the kittens. I’m sure you can guess who won this battle of wills!
A cat hierarchy finally evolved in the household and when Rosie got fed up with the youngsters squabbling she would come around to our house for a bit of peace and quiet. She would often spend hours, if not days, cuddled up to us, so bit-by-bit, I changed my opinion about cats as she turned me into a cat-lover, more or less. Rosie passed away not so long ago after living a long and happy life. We still miss her.
In the local Murcian birding WhatsApp group, the most controversial topic is cats! It is a subject that has the ability to polarise opinions. The problem with cats is that they are incredible predators and each year are killing many millions of birds and other animals. A recent scientific study in the United States reported that cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds each year. You didn’t misread it; it is billions and not millions! I don’t know how many are killed in Spain each year, but it is believed there are 6 million cats, so it has to be many millions of avian deaths. Records by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicate that feral cats on islands have caused or contributed to 33 (14%) of the modern bird, mammal and reptile extinctions.
Cats are a real and not an imagined problem for our wildlife. What’s the answer? I haven’t got a clue, but I don’t share the more extreme views I’ve heard expressed. I think responsible cat owning can help, especially making sure your pet is neutered. In fact, I think if all cats were neutered, except those owned by licensed breeders, this would eventually reduce the population of feral cats. I don’t know what it is like where you live, but every communal rubbish bin here in the campo (where we live) has a resident population of weak and infirm cats living nearby. It’s not a good thing for the cats, the wildlife or local people.
I am now writing in very late August from the UK. As my wife had decided to visit one of her older sisters for a few days it gave me a great opportunity to go birding on the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts. Unfortunately, late August is a dreadful month for birding as most species keep a low profile after their breeding season. However, I figured that there would be a good variety of Waders returning from their Arctic breeding grounds, so I hoped visits to the holy grail of birding, (Minsmere, Cley marshes and Titchwell) would provide an avalanche of Waders. Unlike many bird-lovers I find Waders a fascinating group of birds, but I do appreciate that they are a turn-off for many people. I am hoping that my photos and text will awaken a spark of interest in you, as Murcia has a long coastline that attracts lots of wading birds. Therefore, learning a bit more about this group of birds will bring its rewards.
On arrival at Minsmere, I was absolutely gob-smacked as the main Wader scrape was bone dry! I knew we were experiencing a bit of a drought, but I wasn’t expecting this! However, thinking about what has been happening in the rest of Europe (and the RSPB’s flagship wetland reserve), it brought home to me in striking fashion the threat of climate change to our wildlife; indeed to all of us! It was time to think if I can do anything more to reduce my carbon footprint.
Fortunately there was still a bit of water in front of South hide, so my visit wasn’t completely wasted, but wading birds were at a premium. All the birds were quite distant, but there was a small flock of Waders on the far bank of the scrape. They were Dunlins (Calidris Alpina). Some of them were still in their breeding plumage, so identifying them was a lot easier than when they are in their dull brownish winter plumage. These small Waders about the size of a Starling, are quite gregarious in winter, forming large flocks, but in Murcia we tend to see them in small groups. If you wish to be able to identify different Waders, then pay attention to Dunlins. If you can identify them it is probably the key to more Wader ID, as they make a very good comparator species. In summer plumage they have a very noticeable black belly patch, which is easy to spot and they have longish beaks (which are slightly down curved) and black legs.
As I was watching the Dunlins, a small hyperactive Wader appeared in front of them. Using the Dunlins as a size comparator, it was quite striking how much smaller this bird was, especially when a similar-sized White Wagtail appeared alongside. I was pretty sure it was one of our smallest Waders, a Little Stint (Calidris Minuta), but I wanted to check that it had black legs to distinguish it from its very rare cousin, a Temmincks Stint. My bird had black legs, so my first impression was correct; a Little Stint. I was grateful that it was near the Dunlins, because at that distance, size can be very difficult to judge accurately, although the hyperactivity was a bit of a clue.
Also out on the scrape were some large and long-legged Waders that were clearly much larger than Dunlins. The plumage colour was extremely variable, as some birds were still in their summer finery and others had already moulted into their dull greyish-brown winter plumage. The long-length of their legs and beak clearly identified them as Godwits, but were they Bar-tailed or Black-tailed? There are subtle differences to tell these nearly identical cousins apart, but it is far easier to see them in flight or stretching their wings to expose their tails. These were Black-Tailed Godwits (Limosa Limosa) as they had a very noticeable black band at the end of their tails.
My next stop was at Cley Marshes and although somewhat dry, the remaining water in the scrapes had attracted some interesting Waders. They were Sandpipers, but they looked slightly different from each other. In fact, there were two species; Wood Sandpiper (Tringa Glareola) and Green Sandpiper (Tringa Ochropus). They are just a little bit bigger than a Dunlin, but with longer legs and a stouter body they appear quite a lot bigger. The Wood Sandpiper is a brownish-bodied bird that is very spotty over its wings, with yellow-green legs and a clear white line (supercilium) above the eye. The Green Sandpiper has slightly shorter legs than its cousin and appears to have quite a dark body (black/dark green). It lacks the white supercilium and in flight has a noticeable white rump and distinctive black barring to its tail.
At Titchwell, the saline lagoon was completely dry, but the large freshwater scrape still had enough water to attract a nice variety of Waders, particularly members of the Redshank/Greenshank family. These Waders are considerably bigger than Dunlins and their longer legs allow them to feed in deeper water. They all have bright white cigar-shaped rumps/backs in flight. The Common Redshank (Tringa Tetanus), as its name suggests, is quite common and can be seen quite easily around the Murcian coastline. It is a dull brown, spotty bird, with bright red legs and beak and is another good comparator species that is worth learning.
There was an example of the uncommon Spotted Redshank (Tringa Erythropus) present in the lagoon. This bird was moulting into winter plumage, which makes it look a bit similar to Common Redshank, but in summer plumage it is unmistakable, as it is all black with some faint white spotting. If you see one in the Mar Menor they are slightly bigger than their common cousin and have a distinctive droop at the end of their beaks.
The final member of this group of Waders was also present. It is the largest of the three Shanks and its plumage is quite pale and almost ghost-like in dull light. Like its cousins it is long-legged and long-beaked and the slightly up-curved beak is a good identification feature. I’ve seen Greenshanks quite often in the Mar Menor, especially by the port of Los Urrutias.
My final Waders were a flock of Golden Plovers, many of which were in their striking summer plumage. What a treat! I won’t bother describing them and will let the photo do it for me. They are only winter visitors in Murcia and one of the most reliable sites for seeing them is at the Salinas of Marchamalo.
Waders are a real ID challenge, but are great birds to see once you have started to learn a few of the commoner ones. All the birds featured were seen in the UK, but can also be seen quite regularly along the Murcian coastline. As they say in Murcia, “poco a poco”.
If you have any comments or queries please feel free to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org